Icons of St. Francis and St. Clare grace the chapel at Franciscan Retreats

Through the generosity of the families and friends of the late retreatants Leo Justen, Katie Fox, Pat Geronime, Alvina and Daniel O’Connell, Eleanor Reasner and Isadore Gergen, two beautiful new icons, one of St. Francis and one of St. Clare, grace the main chapel of the retreat center.

The icons were commissioned by Bro. Bob Roddy, OFM Conv., Director of Franciscan Retreats and the icon Writer (“writer” is the term that is used for the artist who creates the icon) is Sister Paula Howard, OSB, a Benedictine from St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas.

Sister Laura Haug, OSB, prepares the boards for Sister Paula to work on. Sister Paula, transfers an outline of the images using tracing paper. With a great deal of time and care, Sister Paula will refine the images to their finished state. (An interesting note, Sister Paula had written another icon of St. Francis for person who owned a bird sanctuary. This gentleman researched the types of birds that would have been indigenous to the Umbrian region of Italy where St. Francis lived. Sister Paula relied on her work on the previous icon for the icon for Franciscan Retreats.)

About Icons

by Sister Paula Howard, OSB

Icon is the Greek word for image. Icons are basically paintings that tell stories; sacred icons tell stories from Scripture or depict an image of the Savior, Mary His Mother, or one of the saints. Considered more a form of prayer than a form of art, some icons are magnificently beautiful, but they are not created in the first place for pleasure or ornamentation. They are intended to invite the viewer to communicate with the person or event depicted in the image. Every line and every color has a meaning, just as every meter of poetry contributes to the message an author wants to tell. For this reason, icons are said to be “written” rather than painted.

For St. John Damascene in the early Christian era, the icon is the “Bible of the illiterate”: What the Bible is for an educated person, the icon is for those who cannot read or write; and what the word is for hearing, the icon is for sight. Even beyond this didactic purpose, the Eastern Church attributes a dimension of the sacred and the divine to the image, which makes a “vision of the invisible.”

Church tradition traces the first icons back to the lifetime of the Savior Himself and the period immediately after Him. In the History of the Church by St. Eusebius (265-340) we read, “I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, and of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved to our times.” Early classical icons were written during the time of the Byzantine culture in Palestine, but the center of iconography was moved to Kiev in 988 under the rule of Vladimir. In 1240, the center of icon painting again moved to the cities of Russia where it reached its zenith in the 15 century. The past fifty years have witnessed a rebirth of appreciation of classic iconography.

The Writing of Icons

The writing of icons is considered a special vocation. The iconographer is expected to fast, pray, and live a holy life so as to be capable of expressing sacred and divine mysteries. Thus, the icon becomes, in a way, the fruit of the Holy Spirit often transmitting spiritual insight.

Although some adaptation has been made in modern times, many ancient procedures for writing icons are followed by today’s iconographers. The slab of knot-free, non-resinous wood is cut and prepared by covering it with some twelve coats of gesso, sanding after each third coat and wet-sanding after the last coat to give it a silky smooth, matte surface. Outlines of the prototype are transferred to this surface and the writing begins. Some iconographers still use egg tempera in the classic tradition, but many have turned to the use of a special brand of tempera that has a smooth texture, dries to a matte finish, and will not decompose.

One begins the writing of the icon by covering the skin areas with a shadowy deep brown color called sankir. Several coats are needed to make the area totally opaque and free of any streaks or blemishes. Lighter tones are washed on, in coat after coat, to provide the highlight areas. The same procedure is followed for each garment and background area. The halos made with delicate 18 karat gold leaf applied with a special varnish. Appropriate lettering is applied where necessary to identify the figures.

©Mount St. Scholastica, Inc., Benedictine Sisters of Atchison, Kansas.


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